Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The President Robs the Cradle

White House wedding day.

It was a quiet, dignified affair, if somewhat subdued because of the august personage of the groom, a portly 49 year old life-long bachelor.  The ceremony, witnessed by a handful of family, friends, and the groom’s staff, was held in an elegant second floor parlor overlooking a spread of lawn known as the Blue Room.  A military band led by a fellow named John Philips Sousa provided the music, his own composition for the occasion.  The bride was a stunning 21 year old brunette in a simple white brocaded dress.  She wore no veil.  At the conclusion of the service the new husband did not offer his new wife the customary kiss.  He had been advised that it might look unseemly.  Instead the couple led the assembly to another well appointed room where an afternoon reception was laid.  After a suitably brief attendance the couple retired to their private quarters.
There was no honeymoon at Niagara Falls, the popular destination of the fashionable.  They were both, after all, from nearby Buffalo, New York and had presumably seen them before.  Instead the busy man returned to his official duties the next day.  He did not even have to leave home.  His office was on the premises.  There he presumably scanned the morning newspaper to see what notice had been taken.  The wedding had created, as was to be expected, something of a stir but so far none of the scandal some had feared.  He was, after all, the sitting President of the United States, Grover Cleveland and the bride, the former Frances Folsom, had official been his ward since the death of her father, a former law partner.
The happy couple.
It was the first and only marriage ceremony by a President ever held in the White House.  One other Chief Executive, John Tyler, had been married while in office but did not hold the nuptials at the White House.  The widower had married the 25 year old daughter of a New York Congressman who had been killed, along with senior members of the administration, when a gun exploded on the deck of the USS Princeton as the couple flirted over tea below.  That marriage turned out to be a long and happy one with seven offspring.  But people had forgotten about Tyler, the first accidental president and a deeply unpopular one who had also become the only former Commander in Chief to take up arms against the government he had once led as a delegate to the Provisional Confederate Congress and Congressman elect of the Rebel House before his death.
Later another Presidential widower, Woodrow Wilson would marry Edith Bolling in 1915 during his first term, but again would have the union solemnized in a church.  The formidable Edith would go on to pretty much run the country after her husband suffered a stroke campaigning for his beloved League of Nations.
The future for Cleveland and his wife was sunnier than either of the other matches.  The couple’s first daughter, Ruth, was born while Cleveland was on hiatus from the presidency in 1891 but was raised in the White House during his second, non-consecutive, term.  Baby Ruth, as she was called in the press, became the object of national adoration.  Unfortunately she died at age 12 in 1904 of diphtheria. The nation mourned and the Curtiss Candy Company named a candy bar after her.

Ruth Cleveland about age 8.
The couple’s first daughter, Ruth, was born while Cleveland was on hiatus from the presidency in 1891 but was raised in the White House during his second, non-consecutive, term.  Baby Ruth, as she was called in the press, became the object of national adoration.  Unfortunately she died at age 12 in 1904 of diphtheria. The nation mourned and the Curtiss Candy Company named a candy bar after her, or at least that is what they told the lawyers for the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth.
The Clevelands had four other children, including Esther who was born in 1893 in the White House, the last Presidential baby born there until John John Kennedy.  The couple remained happily married until Grover’s death in 1908 at the age of 68.  Francis lived on as a widow until 1947.
Cleveland was the second President from Buffalo.  The first was the hapless Millard Fillmore, who can usually be found on lists of worst Presidents.  None the less, the city is mighty proud of both of its favorite sons, each of whom figured prominently in local history independently of their nation political careers.  Statues of both stand proudly in front of the Buffalo City Hall.
Cleveland was born on March 18, 1837 in Caldwell, New Jersey.  His Presbyterian minister father brought the family to Up State New York when Grover was just a boy.  He gave up his education at the Clinton Liberal Academy in 1853 after his father died to help support his family as clerk.  Two years later he relocated to booming Buffalo, the key port on Lake Erie connecting to New York City and eastern markets via the Erie Canal and Hudson River.  There he clerked and read law with law firm of Rogers, Bowen, and Rogers.  After passing the bar in 1859 he established his own firm in 1962 as the Civil War was raging.  As the support of his widowed mother and younger siblings, Cleveland elected to hire a substitute for $150 to serve in his place when he was drafted.  That would make him the first President since Ulysses S Grant not to have served in some capacity, although his predecessor Chester Alan Arthur served as a high ranking New York Militia General who seldom left the state and never saw combat.  Republicans would later use his lack of service against him.
After the war Cleveland rose quickly in Buffalo legal services making a name for himself—and earning the gratitude of Irish voters for his pro bono defense of some of the Fenians arrested after their failed raid on Canada.  He also won a high profile libel case brought against the editor of the Commercial Advertiser.  He chose to live simply in a rooming house while continuing to support his family from his rising income and shunned the largely Republican elite in the city, preferring the company of young men and the convivial lures of the tavern.

Mark Twain was a Buffalo newspaper man while Cleveland was Sheriff of Erie Count.  Later he became one of the reform Republicans--Mugwamps--who support him the tainted James G. Blaine.  In his Autobiography he recalled visiting the president and telling him "In Buffalo you were nothing but a Sheriff.  I was in society."

He was a natural Democrat and threw his lot with the party early in his career.  In 1886 he ran for District Attorney and narrowly lost to his best friend and boarding house roommate Lyman K. Bass.  In 1870 he was elected Sheriff of Erie County by just 300 votes.  His term as a lawman was marked by personal rectitude in a department noted for its corruption.  He was best known for saving the county $10 twice on hangman’s fees by personally slipping the noose around the necks of convicted murderers despite his personal opposition to the death penalty.
Cleveland declined to run for a second term fearing that corruption in the department might later taint his career.  But his two years behind the badge made him moderately wealthy because of the $80,000 in fees which he collected from the courts for the performance of some of his duties.

He then joined Bass and another young lawyer in a new firm at which he was the principle litigator while Bass was off to Congress.  It was during this period that Cleveland, Bass, and other young buck lawyers dabbled with a young widow, Maria Crofts Halpin who became inconveniently pregnant.  Cleveland accepted responsibility and afterward supported Mrs. Halpin and the child.  He would later claim that the real father could not be determined among several candidates but as the only bachelor among the suspects he volunteered to take the rap.  
Republicans taunted Cleveland with cries of "Pa, Pa, Where's My Pa?'  After he was elected anyway Democrats shot back, "Gone to the White House.  Ha, Ha, Ha!"

Historians are divided on the reliability of this claim.  When he first ran for President Republicans mocked him with cries of “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?”  The smear was meant to counter Cleveland’s otherwise spotless reputation of personal rectitude as contrasted to his opponent Senator James G. Blaine of Maine who had been implicated in a number of financial scandals and suspected corruption.  Although middle class women might not have been so forgiving, they did not have the vote.  Except for die-hard Republican Stalwarts, Cleveland’s frank admission of the facts and the suggestion of gallantry in shielding his friends, actually won the admiration of many men and was offered as proof of his essential integrity.
Cleveland won that reputation by his scrupulous honesty as he rose in New York politics and his reputation as a zealous reformer and champion of Civil Service Reform.  In 1881 he handily won election as Mayor of Buffalo and quickly challenged corrupt machine politicians of both parties.  He forced the unwilling Common Council to accept a low bid on a street sweeping contract instead of a bloated contract to a political insider.  Then he enlisted the State Legislature to support the construction of a new local sewer system saving city taxpayers millions of dollars over a locally concocted scheme. 
Such unheard of concern for the taxpayers earned him the unexpected nomination for Governor.  In November 1882 after less than a year as Mayor, Cleveland was swept into office in a tidal wave of support for reform by the largest margin in the state’s history.  And his coat tails were long enough to bring Democrats to power in both houses of the Legislature.  Despite this, the new Governor quickly locked horns with the corrupt New York City Democratic Tammany Hall machine.  On the other hand reform minded Republicans like rising start Theodore Roosevelt swung support to the Governor’s agenda on many issues allowing him to initiate sweeping reforms.  New York based popular national newspapers like Harpers Illustrated which were typically Republican partisans, none the less brought Cleveland’s reform crusades to wider audiences.
In 1884 the previous Democratic champion and sentimental favorite Samuel Tilden was too ill to make a second run for the White House.  In a crowded field and against the opposition to Tammany, Cleveland was nominated on the second ballot over Massachusetts’s radical Benjamin Butler, the wall-eyed former Union general who was the champion of free silver Democrats, labor, and a supporter of women’s suffrage. 
It was a hotly contested election.  Democrats, as usual, were expected to sweep the Solid South—the states of the old Confederacy—plus most of the Border States.  The Republicans expected to retain traditional support of New England, the Mid West, and Far West.  The Middle States of New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware, together rich in Electoral College votes, would be the hard-fought battle ground.  Blaine, who’s wife was Irish Catholic thought he might be able to peel away enough of the traditional Democratic Irish vote to take New York and maybe the other states.  Then, shortly before the election a prominent Republican speaker Rev. Samuel Burchard told a New York City audience that Cleveland represented the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.”  Democrats gleefully published the slur and the Irish flocked to the ballot box to support Cleveland.
A cartoon in usually Republican Harper's Illustrated  show Cleveland's appeal to  GOP reformers by contrasting him to a Tammany Brave.
Meanwhile Republican reformers, labeled Mugwamps by their enemies, abandoned the tainted Blaine and supported Cleveland.   He swept the contested states plus Indiana.  Although the popular vote was close, Cleveland handily won a 219–182 majority in the Electoral College.
Cleveland is sometimes referred to as a Bourbon Democrat.  That is not entirely true.  He was not, like some ante-bellum Democrats a “Northern man of Southern principles.”  He did act on the Democratic platform of dismantling what was left of Reconstruction in the South, but much of that had already been started by his Republican predecessor, Arthur.  Cleveland was a pro-business conservative and an ideological devotee of laissez-faire classic liberalism.  He stood for the gold standard and against both Greenback schemes and free silver.  He opposed high tariffs.  He was for frugality in government, Civil Service Reform.  He was mildly supportive of “responsible labor” but opposed to strikes and “public disorder.”  When push came to shove he would unhesitatingly pit the power of the Federal government against strikers despite the objections of pro-union local Democrats like Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld.
Cleveland would go on to a largely successful first term.  His popularity was even boosted, not harmed by his late marriage.  Four years later the Republicans would run on a protective tariff platform and narrowly took back some of those swing states.  Once again Cleveland won the popular vote but amid some controversy over possible shenanigans in Indiana lost the Electoral vote.
On her way out of the White House in March of 1889 Francis Cleveland told a member of the domestic staff, “Now, Jerry, I want you to take good care of all the furniture and ornaments in the house, for I want to find everything just as it is now, when we come back again.” When asked when she would return, she confidently averred, “We are coming back four years from today.”
And she was right.  After a new, even higher Republican tariff had stiffly raised prices on imported goods, Cleveland swept back into office with an impressive victory in which he won back all of the swing states he lost four years earlier and picked up Illinois, Wisconsin, and California while the Greenback Party took five High Planes and Western silver mining states.  He crushed incumbent Benjamin Harrison and Francis got her house back.

Unfortunately for Cleveland the next four years were much tougher than his first term.  The nation was plunged into a deep depression and widespread unemployment by the Panic of 1893, one of the most severe of the 19th Century.  Coxey’s Army marched on Washington to protest his conservative policies in dealing with the crisis by not dealing with it at all.  Labor unrest swept the country including a violent West Virginia coal strike and the Pullman Boycott/Strike led by Eugene V. Debs and the American Labor Union.  Cleveland ordered Federal troops to “move the mails” and crush the strike.  As a result he alienated many trade unionists and their supporters.
Meanwhile has adamant hard money policies resulted in the Sherman Silver Purchase Act which was the beginning of the end of bimetallism and the rise of the Gold Standard, which had devastating deflationary effects and ruined many farmers and small business people.  That caused a permanent rift between conservative Democrats and western Populists.  After Cleveland’s term the Populists and urban working class would unite to remake the Democrats, at least outside the South inaugurating the so-called Fourth Party System.
Cleveland was in the midst of a bruising battle to lower tariffs when he discovered a tumor on his jaw.  To prevent panic over the health of the President, he had the tumor surgically removed in secret aboard a borrowed yacht.  In a second operation he was fitted with a hard rubber prosthesis to replace a section of his jaw.
When Cleveland left office William Jennings Bryan and the Populists seized control of the Democratic Party.  He supported a break-away Gold Democrat ticket that was trounced at the polls.  Republican William McKinley swept into the White House.
The Clevelands moved to an estate in Princeton, New Jersey where he served on the Board of Trustees of the University.  They raised their growing family and the former President still occasionally weighed in on national issues, particularly for Hard Money and the Gold Standard.  Always conservative, he disparaged agitation for Women’s Suffrage.
In declining health he died of a heart attack on June 28, 1908.  His last words were reported to be, “I have tried so hard to do right.”  He was buried in the Princeton Cemetery of the Nassau Presbyterian Church.  Nearly 40 years later Frances was laid along side of him.

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